This is the twentieth and chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
The “pseudo boy” in commercial movies
Before we move on to consider the school film, and special friendships between boys and their teachers, mention should be made in passing of the pseudo-boy in cinema, the boy hero who is clearly 12-14, from all of the cues in the scenario and screenplay, but who is cast as an 18-24 year old in order to guarantee the film a wider market appeal (older teens are still the bedrock of the worldwide cinema-going audience, demographically speaking). For a cardinal example one need look no further than “STAR WARS” (77). Whatever George Lucas may or may not have said publicly on the subject, it’s clear from the subtexts of his own film that Luke Skywalker, at the outset, is a boy of 12-14 (as was the hero of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, which clearly influenced Lucas). Mark Hamill, 25, played him as a fey 16-18 year old, but all of the emotional cues, and some of the dialogue, in the early sequences of the film, suggest that Luke was younger than this. When David Lynch inadvisedly tried to film the behemoth novel “DUNE” (84), he similarly cast a youngish-faced adult (Kyle MacLachlan) as the boy Paul Atreides, rather than use a genuine boy actor for the early sequences on Caladan and Arrakis. The boy-hungry arch-villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen mutated likewise into a beachball with painted toenails and a yen for flower-arranging gay men.
“STARGATE” (94) arrived exactly a decade later, by which time the social neurosis I have been describing had been thoroughly implanted in the audience's mind. Instead of defraying the pederasty of Baron Harkonnen into something less controversial, it could pointedly surround its own arch-villain (the dangerously epicene Jaye Davidson) with semi-naked small boys, thus revamping the old Hollywood trope of the queer sociopath for a new generation obsessed with paedophilia. The massed ranks of gay protesters who marshaled angry demon-strations against Jonathan Demme’s “THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS” (91) remained strangely mute when it was homosexual pederasty taking the heat. But also in “STARGATE”, bizarrely, while fey Egyptologist James Spader is given a conventional “love interest” in the other-worldly Mili Avatal, nihilistic expedition leader Kurt Russell is paired off with an other-worldly Arab boy in the shape of Alexis Cruz (to the extent that when his binoculars first light on the boy amid a huge host, Russell licks his lips). Cruz was in fact 20, but the film has him latch onto Russell’s macho character with all the eager ingratiation of a 12-year old Mexican boy idolising John Wayne or Charles Bronson. The film heads off any scurrilous notions about an untoward penchant for Arab boys by means of a back-story (as in “ALIENS”) which casts Russell as a grieving parent. Nevertheless the man-boy paradigm is a very visible strand running through that film — to no appreciable purpose, it has to be said. And still they picked a 20-year old to play it.
For that matter, Frodo Baggins in “LORD OF THE RINGS” (another seminal influence on Lucas) is to all practical purposes a brave young boy hero with shaggy feet – explicitly so in Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated version. In 2001 Peter Jackson cast erstwhile boy star Elijah Wood, 19, thereby salvaging at least an echo of tender youth. His trilogy was a stunning tour de force, probably the most accomplished epic ever delivered on the screen, but it might have been more engaging on the human level, and a scarier film by far, had Wood played that role in his doe-eyed prime, four or five years earlier. Great Danger, also, is part of the romance of boyhood, undermined sadly by the cinematic convention that child leads never come to a sticky end however grave their peril, and audiences have simply learned to expect that no real harm will befall them. It is all the more shocking then, when a director flouts that golden rule, as Spielberg did in “JAWS” (75) and “SCHINDLER’S LIST” (93), or John Carpenter did in “ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13” (76). It generates the most chilling, sickening moment in “STRANGE GAMES” (xx), a powerful film in the “COMPULSION” vein. Children can and do die, as violently and suddenly as anyone else.
Christian Slater was only 15 during principal shooting on “THE NAME OF THE ROSE” (86) (and was chaperoned by his mother for the duration), yet he still looks an important year or two too old for the novice monk Adzo, and this was no doubt because of the brief sex scene he has with the nameless village wench. More to that, director Jean-Jacques Annaud cast youths who were plainly too old for the two other “beautiful boys” whose deaths precede the arrival of Sean Connery at the abbey. In reality, an institution like that would have been well-populated with genuine boys of 10-16, but — although the film was so scrupulous in its authenticity elsewhere — there’s not a single one to be seen on screen, because of the undercurrents of homosexual activity in the story. The script talks as though young boys were around (so did the script of “ALEXANDER”), but there are none of the beasts to be seen, which might have created problems with the censors (as it had done for Polidoro’s “SATYRICON” (68), Mai Zetterling’s “NATTLEK” (66)).
More recently than “THE NAME OF THE ROSE” but much in the same vein was Paul McGuigan’s obscure “THE RECKONING” (UK/Spain 2003). Set in the reign of Richard II, it follows an itinerant band of players who arrive at a village where a young boy has recently been murdered. Finding little local enthusiasm for their stock repertoire of Bible tales, lead player William Dafoe strikes on the faintly heretical notion of making their own play based on the topical case of the boy. But the more they investigate the killing, the more obvious it becomes that he was not murdered by the woman about to hang for it, but sodomised and murdered by local Norman lord Robert de Guise, who has been taking his pick of the crop of village boys for some while now. (“THE HOUR OF THE PIG” (93), for that matter, was yet another historical whodunnit conveniently pegged to our obsession with child-killers and sodomites of boys.) Ah, but when the boy’s body is disinterred and examined in the course of their investigation, the body is clearly that of a man in his twenties. The script (by one Mark Mills) talks incessantly of “innocent young boys” horribly debauched by a depraved aristocrat, but the casting director evidently decided the story’s “adult themes” (another stupid construct much in vogue today) precluded casting actual boys. 13, 26, what’s the difference?
Similarly, the role of Antoninus in the benchmark 1960 epic “SPARTACUS” was self-evidently written to be played by a stunningly gorgeous boy. Tony Curtis, 25, was grotesquely miscast, Brooklyn accent and all, a “singer of songs” who could not hold a note, as the slave boy lecherously coveted by patrician general Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), but who gives his heart voluntarily to the slave leader Spartacus (Kirk Douglas). A deadly man/boy/man triangle looms, but even bland homosexuality was still a fiercely controversial area in 1960, so Antoninus was cast as a rugged(ish) man of 24, and the film frantically directs our attention instead to the love of both men for the slave Varinia (Jean Simmons). However, the giveaway comes in the touching penultimate scene, where Spartacus and Antoninus are forced to fight to the death before the jealous Crassus, and their parting words are “I love you Spartacus — as I loved my own father..”. “I love you Antoninus — as I love the son I shall never see.” Those rather desperate qualifiers to the love they’re professing, blurted out with scarcely a pause for breath, do not fool anyone. Spartacus, like Crassus, loves the delectable Antoninus. Picture him played by Leif Garrett at 15/16, or Noah Hathaway at 14, and replay those scenes in your mind (as no doubt writer Dalton Trumbo did). Olivier’s censor-deleted “snails and oysters” dialogue with his slave boy in the bath immediately takes on more truth, and it scared the bejeebers out of producer Douglas.
It isn’t hard, once one recognises the signs, to spot other films where the actor cast is plainly too old for the role as originally envisaged: Sabu’s Mowgli in “THE JUNGLE BOOK” (42), Zach Galagan in “GREMLINS” (84), Matthew Broderick in “LADYHAWKE” (85), Jamie Bell in “KING KONG” (2005), Alex Pettyfer in “STORMBREAKER” (2006), Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher in TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, Richard Attenborough in “THE GUINEA PIG” (48), the lead pupils in four out of five boys’ school films ever made. The “pseudo-boy”, where an older youth (or a full grown man) steals the part intended for a boy, parallels the “ersatz boy” of American silent cinema, when leading actresses were given all the key boyhood roles (and in one bizarre instance, Mary Pickford played both “LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY” (21) and his mother “Dearest” in the same shots!) These are impostors. In films women frequently chose to masquerade as “boys” in order to go abroad unmolested in a man’s world (seems ironic today), and those “cross-gendered” titles would make an amusing sidebar topic in itself (were women playing boys more – or less? – convincing in the part than when young boys played all the female roles on stage?). Ah, but that is straying too far from our theme.
Suffice here to say that “THE NAME OF THE ROSE” and “STAR WARS” have that telltale boy-man emotional intensity — Adzo is frantic with concern for his mentor Brother William of Baskerville as the forbidden library burns, and finally elects not to linger behind with his “nameless rose”, but to follow the man of his heart, while Luke Skywalker is grief-stricken by the death of Obi-wan Kenobi (Gandalf slain by the Balrog in Moria) beyond what one would expect from the situation. The ghost of the special man-boy relationship is clearly visible in such films.